Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Steve Flowers: Inside the Statehouse: The $261 million question

  The Alabama Legislature and Governor Robert Bentley are preparing for the first regular session of the quadrennium. The session will begin March 3.

  Legislators need to arrive in Montgomery with their lunch pails and sleeves rolled up ready to go to work because the proverbial chickens have come home to roost. They are facing a gargantuan budget crisis in the General Fund. They cannot spend this four years cursing Obama Care and passing unconstitutional and meaningless bills dealing with federal issues like immigration and abortion.

  They cannot kick the can down the road any longer. If they do not fix the cash strapped General Fund, they are going to start getting calls from angry constituents telling them that Aunt Susie is being kicked out of the nursing home and she’s coming to live with them; and their daughter went down to the courthouse to get her driver’s license on her 16th birthday and nobody was there to give her the test; and their wife was in a car accident on I-65 and she sat in the care for two hours until a state trooper arrived, and, by the way, there are a couple of state convicts hanging out in their front yard.

  The legislature has a big hole to dig out of for next year. Those legislators who were proud of being placed on the budget committees during the organizational session may want to rethink their committee assignments. Their appointments may appear more like a prison sentence.

  For the next fiscal year, the budget hole in just the General Fund is over $261 million. However, the projected shortfall over the next few years will be more like $700 million. The governor has to take the lead in steering the state out of this crisis. The governor proposes and the legislature disposes.

  Gov. Bentley has said that the time has come when the state is not able to postpone dealing with the issue any longer. “Taxes would be the last thing I would look to as far as raising a new tax. But I cannot see getting through this without having to raise new revenue.” Bentley continued, “We’re broke and we don’t have enough money to cover what we owe.” In his defense, he did not cause the problem. He inherited it. His predecessor left the cupboard bare. Bob Riley spent any and all cash in the Rainy Day Fund, and the federal stimulus money has run out.

  It is no secret that the major culprits causing the dilemma in the General Fun are Medicaid and prisons. The governor is adamant that he does not want to expand Medicaid under the Federal Medicaid Expansion Act. He has consistently held the position that we cannot expand because we cannot afford what we have now.

  The prison problem is pressing. Alabama’s prison system is at almost double its capacity. This overcrowding is creating safety problems and is teetering on an emergency situation. There may be some long-term solutions. Some of the problems could be alleviated by alternative sentencing measures. There has to be other ways to punish crimes besides incarceration. Other states have had success taking this approach. Alabama Senator Cam Ward has taken the lead in prison reform. He will be at the forefront of any reform measures.

  In the meantime, any alternative sentencing guidelines will take years to implement. This crisis must be addressed immediately. The state will have to allot more funds for adequate jails or risk having a federal takeover of the state prison system. There is a precedent for this in the state. The bill for the federal takeover was extremely expensive.

  We will shortly see what the governor has to offer as solutions to the state’s financial woes. When the governor makes his proposals on March 3rd, the presiding officer in the House will be Speaker Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn). He has been indicted on 23 felony ethics charges accusing him of using his office for personal gain. His trial is set to begin in October.

  Campaign records show he has spent close to $300,000.00 for legal fees using his campaign funds, which has been ruled allowable by an attorney general’s opinion issued in 2000. The advisory opinion says that criminal defense costs can be paid out of campaign finance funds if the accusations are related to how the person performed in office.

  About the author: Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 72 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at http://www.steveflowers.us/. He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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